Saturday, December 26, 2009

When Characters Behave Out of Character

Anselmo Bucci-1887-195-- Labigia 1922 This post functions as a follow up to the last one. What if you do need your protagonist to go down into a dark basement?

I think most readers agree that one thing that immediately forces them out of a story is when a character does something out of character. Occasionally authors need a plot device to forward the resolution of the story and some poor character will have to do something totally contrived.

“Why,” wonders the reader, “would Kathy go into the clearing alone when she knows there’s a ravenous T-Rex there? She’s always been perfectly rational before…did she have a small stroke?”

Sometimes I can suspend my disbelief and just try to forge on and enjoy a book. But it’s gotten harder to do so. As a writer, I’m determined not to humiliate my characters by making them do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do.

But I still need a plot device. Usually, there comes a point in my story where I need my sleuth to confront the murderer. Naturally, this meeting never happens in the police station. Oh no, it’s got to happen in a scary, deserted location where my detective’s life is at stake.

But my sleuth is a smart woman. How to reasonably get her there? Was she expecting to have a partner present to ensure her safety during the confrontation? Did that partner end up in a car crash or unavoidably detained somehow?

I try to think like my character—what kind of excuses would they give for behaving like this? “I realized I’d seen something odd at the scene of the crime, so I went back to have another look. But the murderer went back too…to collect the evidence that pointed to him.”

I try to think of as many excuses as possible why a character would act out of their normal behavior pattern. Then I pick the most plausible reason, write it, and see if it works.

If none of the excuses seem plausible, it’s back to the drawing board. It’s worth some extra work to make sure I’m not losing a reader’s interest.

I’m thinking most fiction writers have the same problem. Why is the protagonist not using his magic powers to solve the problem? Why is the female protagonist making the same mistakes over and over again for no reason but to provide more plot conflict? I think it’s good to point out what the readers are already thinking and have the character answer their questions: (“Wish my magic powers could be used to stop time, but….” or “I know it seems like I keep making the same mistakes, but…”)

Hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. I’m taking a short blog break for Christmas and reposting some of my older posts from 2009. Thanks so much to everyone for making my blogging year a happy one.